Media Mention of Hussein Ibish in Politico - March 8, 2010 - 1:00am

For much of the past year as he has shuttled dozens of times to the Middle East and Europe quietly trying to persuade Israelis and Palestinians back to the peace table, U.S. Special Envoy George Mitchell has borne the brunt of criticism of both those offended by the Obama administration’s early pressure on Israel to halt new settlements on the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and others disappointed that Obama failed to follow through when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refused to stop the new construction as a precondition for negotiations.

Along the way, Mitchell has also had to endure rumors that he was on the verge of quitting given his age (76), young family, and presumed frustration that his endless shuttling had to date yielded no talks.

But Mitchell’s aides insisted that the former Senate Majority Leader has legendary patience, and reminded journalists that Mitchell had spent five years negotiating the Northern Ireland Peace accords. And now, with Palestinian and Israeli leaders agreeing to go into U.S.-mediated “proximity talks,” with blessings from the Arab League, Mitchell finally has something to show for his efforts, succeeding both in convincing the Palestinians to at least talk about final status negotiations, and calling Netanyahu’s bluff on his oft-declared position that he is ready to “talk anywhere, anytime, no preconditions.”

Characteristically, Mitchell was not one for a victory lap Monday. As he quietly departed Israel just as Vice President Joseph Biden was arriving, Mitchell issued a short, four-line statement that he was “pleased that the Israeli and Palestinian leadership have accepted indirect talks,” and saying that he’d be returning to the region next week to “continue our discussions” about “the structure and scope of these” talks going forward. He also said that hopes they will “lead to direct negotiations as soon as possible.”

“I thought it was a good thing that Mitchell was able to say something after all these trips,” Middle East expert Stephen P. Cohen, author of “Beyond America’s Grasp: A Century of Failed Diplomacy in the Middle East,” told POLITICO Monday. But, he added, “Nobody expects proximity talks to be equivalent to negotiations for permanent status.”

Cohen said it’s important that the Palestinian leadership got the support of the Arab League last week to go into talks even without a full Israeli settlement freeze. “When [former Palestinian leader Yasser] Arafat went to Camp David [during the Clinton administration], he never had that kind of [Arab] backing,” Cohen said. Mitchell or somebody “did some important heavy lifting” to get the Arab League endorsement.

But Mitchell’s statement left some observers baffled. What had the parties agreed to if the “structure and scope” of the indirect talks were still being worked out? Could reporters even describe that the indirect talks were already underway?

“No terms of reference [for negotiations], no clear mechanism or modality, no timetable, no list of issues,” have been agreed by the parties, observed former Israeli consul general Alon Pinkas, implying the Herculean effort to get such a substantively thin agreement was almost comical.

But Pinkas added, “While U.S. policy may have been flawed and incoherent at times, you can't fault [President Barack] Obama and Mitchell for trying. The level of distrust between the sides is too deep, Hamas' grip on Gaza is too strong and Netanyahu's unwilling coalition too reluctant to just assume negotiations can be resumed in good faith."

Hussein Ibish of the American Task Force for Palestine said the indirect talks provide a potential bridging mechanism that could ultimately yield the direct final status negotiations the Obama administration has long sought.

"I think they're going to be talking about how to resume full, direct negotiations," Ibish says. "The Palestinians want specifics," Ibish continued. "The Israelis want the vagueness. That's a difficult gap to bridge. …. Proximity talks allow them, and everyone to ease back into the negotiating process with some political protection."

A Democratic congressional staffer recently back from the region agreed the proximity talks glass is both half full and half empty.

“It’s better than complete stagnation and a resumption of violence, but hardly cause for fireworks and a parade,” the Democratic Hill staffer told POLITICO. “Having just been there during recess, prospects for the proximity talks advancing rapidly don’t come to mind.”

So do Mitchell et al deserve props?

“I think it depends on what you expect of a Presidential envoy,” the staffer continued. “If you believe that the most the U.S. can expect under current circumstances is to gain the acquiescence of the two parties -- both of which are highly dependent upon us -- to grant us the privilege of communicating between them, something it should be recalled that, little more than a year ago, they used to do quite nicely without us, then I suppose it’s an achievement,” he said.

“But on the other hand, if you believe the prestige of the President of the United States is badly wasted by having his personal envoy serve as a diplomatic messenger boy between next-door neighbors, it looks rather paltry,” he said.

Cohen was more sympathetic. Mitchell “gets credit as a man for persistence. And Obama has to get credit for not being overrun by hysteria to get a complete settlement freeze. He didn’t see it as the end of the work on the problem. He saw it as the first try of a president who tried from his first month in office” to solve the Middle East conflict. Now, Cohen added, “Obama gets another chance.”


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